What is it? A special set of servers that emulate 2006-era World of Warcraft.
Expect to pay: $15/month (included for free in a regular WoW subscription)
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Reviewed on: i7-7700, Nvidia RTX 2070, 16 GB RAM, 500GB SSD
Returning to World of Warcraft Classic is a humbling experience. With thousands of hours spent in Azeroth, I've defeated intergalactic demon armies and thwarted orc hordes from alternate timelines all while amassing the most powerful gear the universe has ever known. But Classic makes braving a cave filled with level 12 troggs feel like a massive achievement. It's not so much a nostalgia trip as it is a nostalgia fall into a pit of rusty razor blades. And, dammit, I kind of like it that way.
After finally caving into pressure from its community, Blizzard's revival of 2006-era World of Warcraft is a grueling and often frustrating experience. But it's also helped me rediscover why I love Warcraft in the first place. For better and worse, this is World of Warcraft exactly as I remember playing it well over a decade ago—before expansions, like 2010's Cataclysm, streamlined entire game systems and forever changed Azeroth.
You can still read our original 2004 review of World of Warcraft here.
Nostalgia can often be deceiving, but Classic proves that people are right to spend so much time fawning over that pivotal era of WoW's early years. Experienced today, Classic's uncompromised vision feels endearing and rewarding, thanks largely to challenging combat that necessitates social cooperation and flavorful RPG systems that make each class feel distinct.
That's a stark contrast to the latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, where I'm so powerful that I can accomplish almost everything alone except dungeons and raids that require a group. Even then, I'm provided with tools to automate that process and match me with a random group of strangers who usually hail from other servers. Natural opportunities to make friends have become few and far between in that version of Azeroth, but they're everywhere in Classic.
Below: Combat in Classic feels slower and less active but also far more lethal.
The trade-off is that Classic is an enormous investment of time with no guaranteed reward. I can spend an hour searching for a group to run a dungeon, only to have everything fall apart if our team can't coordinate properly. But I actually prefer just how intimidating this Classic version of Azeroth feels. There's a renewed sense of danger and adventure to zones that I've already spent hundreds of hours exploring, and it requires that I pay attention to my surroundings at all times unless I want to become dinner to a family of panthers. It makes Azeroth feel new again. I rarely feel like I'm on autopilot while I'm playing—except during those occasional 20-minute hikes to nearby zones.
It's just a shame that questing in Classic is such hot garbage. It's the best source of experience points, but many zones have too few quests and they all feel like dull chores. Killing 12 boars in an open field isn't all that fun, especially when the drop rate on the item needed for the quest is cruelly low. Times like these make me wish I was my level 120 demon hunter so I could round up dozens of boars and slaughter them all at once.
Though I like how challenging Classic is, there are definitely times when it feels outright unfair. Quests that involve braving monster-filled caves are a nightmare unless you have a friend to help because the enemy density is often too high, making it easy to pull a pack of gnolls by accident. It's such slow going that sometimes by the time I reach my objective, all the enemies have respawned behind me. I have often died right next to an enemy so that when I resurrect it'll immediately attack me again and kill me. My only option in these moments is to continually run back to my corpse from the graveyard and resurrect and run for the exit. Rinse and repeat until I'm safe.
Though this oppressive danger can suck if I'm all alone, it emphasizes the need to group up with other players. In the 30 hours I've spent playing Classic, I've had to join forces with countless people to stay alive. The slower pace of combat and the need to frequently take breaks to regenerate mana or health in-between battles creates welcome pockets of conversation that frequently turn into meaningful relationships. It's how I found a guild and more than a few new entries on my friends list.
My first time entering the Deadmines, for example, was with a group of chatty players who all belonged to a single guild. More than once we accidentally pulled too many enemies into a fight and had to scramble to stay alive. Instead of getting frustrated or looking to lay blame, these moments were frantic and hilarious.
After we defeated the final boss, our party was entirely dead save for me and our nearly dead rogue who was being chased by a pirate while screaming for me to shoot it—only I had just ran out of ammo and was helpless. It was like a chase scene from Scooby Doo as I frantically tried to get this enemy's attention and save my teammate.
It's not that these moments don't happen in modern Warcraft, but I often feel like that version encourages people to focus too much on the rewards and destination. Players want to avoid speed bumps at all costs just to check a box on a list of chores and move on. But Classic's indomitable grind (it will take hundreds of hours to reach level 60) and slow combat encourages me to relax and enjoy the journey because I know I'm not getting anywhere quickly. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Players like me return to play WoW Classic hoping to relive those nostalgic memories, making us willing to socialize with strangers and just enjoy the moment-to-moment play. That, in turn, ends up manifesting our desired experience.
Being a part of this weird second zeitgeist is what's made my return to Classic so magical. The infamous Barrens chat is back to its usual filthy nonsense, Hillsbrad Foothills is a bloodbath of open-world PVP, and major cities are often full of players offering to weave cloth bags to expand players' inventory space at no extra charge. Playing Classic is like participating in a medieval fair or civil war reenactment—only this time we're collectively roleplaying what it felt like to first discover World of Warcraft 15 years ago when the internet wasn't shit.
In an era where games are constantly evolving and never looking back, it's almost impossible to get a chance to replay a version of a game as it existed in a specific moment in time. But, to me, WoW Classic is more than just a new version of an iconic game—it feels like a window to a time where interacting with people online still felt novel and exciting. And all the positive and enthusiastic encounters I've had so far tell me other people feel the same.
The only downside is that, right now, millions of players are flooding what few servers there are hoping for that experience. Depending on which server you play on, it's quite possible you might see three-hour queues just to get in during the evenings. Being locked out all evening can be enormously frustrating but is hopefully a temporary problem as more servers are added and the excitement fades.
Even if the community and social aspects are fun, I do have to warn you that there many punishing parts of Classic that I had forgotten about. When I die in a dungeon, for example, I don't start at the beginning like I do in modern WoW but all the way at the nearest graveyard outside. It turns a 30 second run back to my body to one that can exceed three minutes—an infuriating trek if my group is struggling with a boss. Mounts also aren't available until level 40, making any long-distance trip across Azeroth a boring slog, and it's annoying how frequently I have to travel back to major cities to pick up new class abilities every level.
These rough edges, along with the awful quest system, really scrape and bruise, but they're each an inseparable part of what made World of Warcraft the phenomenon it eventually became—a once-bizarre, bloated MMO that has little to no respect for my free time but is capable of forging relationships in its crucible. Compared to modern WoW, which desperately strives to be constantly fun and convenient, I prefer the latter—at least for now.
The enduring genius of WoW Classic's design (shared by other MMOs like EVE Online) is that it's okay to frustrate and piss players off now and again. It's what initially helped WoW transcend from mere game to cultural phenomenon. No grand adventure is always sunshine and rainbows, and if I get deep into a dungeon and forgot to bring enough ammo, the only person to blame is myself. But, instead, Blizzard years later decided that ammo was sometimes frustrating and therefore bad and removed it along with a long list of other busywork players had to occupy themselves with.
Comparisons between Classic and Battle for Azeroth are inevitable, but I'm just glad I can make the choice and that both versions of Warcraft now coexist alongside one another. Compared to its modern version, Classic is weird, janky, and weighed down with the fat of useless abilities and systems like my hunter having to continually feed his pet snacks to keep it happy. But it's these haphazard, cumbersome mechanics that give Classic so much character and flavor.
World of Warcraft Classic is still the exact same MMO I remembered losing so many nights to as a teenager, and 15 years later it's still just as fun and as frustrating as I'd hoped it would be.